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Milton Friedman on Tax Freedom Day

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The Tax Foundation reported that Tuesday was Tax Freedom Day (TFD), which is the day that Americans stop “working for the government” through their tax payments and start working for themselves.


TFD is calculated by taking total federal, state, and local taxes and dividing by national income to get a ratio representing the share of income that the average person pays in all taxes. That ratio is applied to the 365-day calendar. This year the ratio is 29.2 percent, which translates into April 17 for TFD. Time to party!

But maybe not quite yet…

When I worked at Tax Foundation in 1993, I mailed a letter to Milton Friedman asking about his view on TFD. He kindly responded with a letter and a 1974 Newsweek article in which he proposed a “Personal Independence Day.” That day would be based on total government spending, which is larger than total taxes, and thus our day to celebrate freedom from the government hasn’t yet arrived this year.

In his letter to me, Friedman stressed that total spending is the important variable in assessing the burden of government: “If government spends an amount equal to 50 percent of the national income, only 50 percent is left to be available for private purposes, and that is true however the 50 percent that government spends is financed.” And while some economists focus on how government borrowing may “crowd out” private investment, Friedman said, “What does the crowding out is government spending, however financed, not government deficits.”

In its TFD report, Tax Foundation includes a supplemental calculation looking at spending. The thinktank figures that Americans will work until May 14 this year to be free from the burden of federal, state, and local spending. The Foundation is lacking a snappy name for that important day, but now we are reminded that Friedman has already suggested one.  


Friedman hoped that “Personal Independence Day” would complement our national Independence Day of July 4. The latter is the day we celebrate independence from the “Royal Brute of Britain,” as Tom Paine called him in Common Sense. But for Paine and the other Founders, the deeper goal of July 4, 1776 was to create a limited government to ensure the maximum space for the exercise of individual freedom. As Paine noted, private “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”

So Milton Friedman’s Personal Independence Day can be our annual reminder that while our forefathers gave the boot to the “crowned ruffians” of Old Europe, we’ve still got work to do in limiting the power grabbing of our own elected ruffians in Washington.

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